Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Two and a Half Books

My book groups and I have been reading some interesting stuff.

I can't say enough good about Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower. It is, yes, the story of the Pilgrims' establishment of Plymouth Colony in 1620, and its growth and struggles in the decades that followed -- but this is a story most of us probably don't know very well, obscured as it’s been by centuries of myth and sentimental overlay. I knew that the Pilgrims arrived near wintertime, and had a tough go of it... after reading Mayflower, I'm amazed any of them lived to procreate. I had a general sense that the region's Native populations had a more complicated political structure than the traditional telling of this story has us believe, and it was fascinating to learn those details. And I had a very hazy recollection of King Philip's War from high school American History -- that is to say, I'd heard the words "King Philip's War" before -- but, wow. Now I know. And so should you -- but even though you'll feel all virtuous and wicked smaht afterwards, reading Mayflower isn't like taking medicine. Philbrick has a real gift for telling history through different, compelling points of view. It makes for a richly informative work, and a reading experience like delving into a fat, complicated novel. This is not a book to scan in short bursts, though, so give it a couple hours at a time. It's a fascinating read. Southern New England residents especially will love the maps.

The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany, is an Egyptian novel, a best seller there since its publication in 2002. It’s kind of a soap opera centered on a Cairo building, from the poorest, who crowd its roof, to the aristocrats, businessmen and politicians who occupy its spacious, elegant apartments. If you can keep the characters’ names straight, then this is a book that can be read in short sessions, though you won’t necessarily have to, as it keeps its pace, and it’s not too long. It isn’t an especially well-written novel – he’s no Khaled Hosseini -- though translation may account for some clumsiness of phrase. Still, The Yacoubian Building is engaging, and its characters’ relationships are interesting, if sort of dismal. We follow the coming of age of the doorman’s son and his sweetheart (and learn what different things that means, for a young man and a young woman), the scheming servants of an aging aristocrat, the sexual exploits of the aristocrat and others, the corruption of “elected” officials, and a homosexual romance. Most of these stories have tragic arcs, as if the author is trying to show that life in Cairo causes people to bring out the absolute worst in each other. The novel has a curiously depressing effect that isn’t entirely abated by the happy note on which it ends. I would be very curious to hear if Egyptians find it that way too.

Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation is just terrific -- also, sadly, I’m just not going to finish it. Inspired in part by the intensity of her despair during the Bush administration (almost over! almost over!), the author goes on a mission to find out as much as she can about the people who were unbalanced and dangerous enough to kill Presidents. (“Hello there!” she waves from the pages of her prologue to the FBI agents who will doubtless be assigned to read her book.) Assassination Vacation is the wacky account of her dragging people along on trips to scores of historical sites, some world famous, some bizarrely obscure, connected to the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Vowell is funny and insightful; the perfect historical tour guide. The Lincoln stuff, which I loved, takes about half the book. For whatever reason I couldn’t get to Garfield. After many months I admitted defeat; it appears I’m just not going to get to Garfield. But I recommend you take this jaunt at least as far as I did. It’s a hoot, and you’ll learn stuff.

Phew. What's on your nightstand? The books, I mean. The books.


  1. I just finished World Without End (finally - it's huge) by Ken Follet, which is a sequel to Pillars of the Earth. It was fantastic.

    I'm now reading Heat by Bill Buford, which isn't grabbing me the way I'd hoped and I may have to bring it back to the library unfinished.

  2. I used to teach Mary Rowlandson's first person account of her kidnapping. Is she mentioned in the book?

  3. Yes, Mary Rowlandson's story is there. Horribly sad -- I can't imagine the anguish she suffered -- but also one of the ways Philbrick shows another side of King Philip, who was kind to her when he didn't have to be.